TRIBUTE TO JIM
May 19, 2012
I am Herb Sundall and I don’t remember when I didn’t know Jim Abdnor. I guess I was a “Little Abdnor” before the term was invented. All of you are familiar with Jim’s political achievements. I want to talk about Jim the person – plain old Jim and I mean that as a sincere compliment. I also want to talk about the remarkable relationships with young people he maintained his entire life.
In his early years after graduating from Nebraska, Jim taught and coached in Presho & Kennebec. He then farmed for several years although in all honesty farming was never his love. He was bit by the political bug probably to the dismay of his father, Sam. Don’t get me wrong. In later years Sam was extremely proud of Jim being a United States Representative. But in the prior years Sam wasn’t so impressed with politics. Jim decided to run for, and was elected Lt. Governor. Sam’s response to the victory was this: I don’t know why anybody would spend $10,000 to get a $5,000 a year job!
Jim loved High School & College sports and was a decent athlete himself. He was a very good at football. In his post college days he would come and scrimmage with Kennebec High School. All he wore was a helmet. He didn’t need anything else. And he loved baseball. Don Floyd used to tell the story of Jim playing in the outfield at the old Kennebec field, which was adjacent to Medicine Creek. A high fly ball was hit, Jim gave chase, and as Floyd told the story, there was no outfield fence so Jim ran right off the edge of the creek bank. If you ever have seen Wiley Coyote chasing the Roadrunner in cartoons, that was Jim, taking three or four steps in mid air before plummeting to the creek bottom below. He climbed out of the creek, wet and muddy, and he had the ball.
Jim had a special relationship with High School age kids. He took them to Dakota Days, Hobo Days, Beef Bowls & State Basketball Tournaments. For many it was their 1st trip to Sioux Falls or Brookings or Vermillion. My 1st pizza in the 1960’s was compliments of Jim Abdnor. These trips involved not just me but scores of young persons in Lyman County.
Some will remember that a couple times announcements were made during the state “B” championship to this effect: Senator Jim Abdnor please report to tournament headquarters, or Senator Jim Abdnor you are asked to report to the Holiday Inn. Of course that meant that some of his boys were in trouble. Fortunately that did not happen often.
Jim often used young people to drive him on campaigns. Having a driver had a dual benefit. For all of Jim’s strengths driving was not one of them. South Dakota was safer with a young person behind the wheel, as many of us know.
For several years Jim was Legion Baseball Coach at Kennebec. I have a trivia question for you. What is the only town in SD to have a winning record against Rapid City Post 22? That would be Kennebec. Jim was coach, and he took Kennebec to Rapid City & defeated Post 22. Admittedly this was pre Dave Ploof and the dynasty days of Post 22 but it was still little Kennebec over Rapid City. Not sure Coach Ploof ever quite believed the story. But he did offer Jim a rematch. Jim was too smart for that. Ironically Jim’s favorite team became Post 22. He was one of their biggest fans, hardly ever missed a game while he lived in Rapid City, and even took trips with the team. He took Post 22 players to Florida to his place there. Once we attended a game in Rapid City & Jim invited the team to his house for pizza. His intent was to invite just the 15 or so players, but as we arrived at Jim’s house his front yard was full of people because all the parents and a few girlfriends came too. Probably 40-50 people. He handed me a handful of cash and said go order some more pizzas and bring more pop and some beer. I did and we fed the entire group. Jim was in his glory, entertaining people.
Jim treated all people with respect. I traveled to Washington DC while Jim was in the House. I got on an elevator at one of the House office buildings. The elevator operator, a middle-aged gentleman, asked where I was from. I answered South Dakota, half expecting an “oh” for a response. Quite the contrary. The operator said, that’s Representative Abdnor’s home state. He is one of the best people here. From Presidents (and he knew a few) to elevator operators, Jim treated all people with respect and dignity. That’s our plain Jim.
Relationship with young people extended to his nieces and nephews. He referred to them as “my family” and he was very proud of them.
During the last year his nieces and nephews have maintained a continual schedule of coming to visit the man who I even now call Uncle Jim. He so enjoyed those visits and was always excited to hear they were coming. In his last few days, when he was barely able to speak, I told him Lea and Suzie would be here in a couple hours. He managed a slight smile and said “wonderful”.
As Jim’s long time advisor, Frank Brost, told me recently. Jim was in the people business. He was not flowery, flamboyant or swauve. He was simple, straight forward and sincere. What you saw is what you got. There were better speakers, more articulate orators. But one on one, no one was ever better. If Jim could spend 10 minutes with a voter, he had a new supporter. He was the genuine deal. He was often called the most honest politician in state history. There may have been politicians as honest but there has never been one more honest. Not Possible. Why do you think young people connected with Jim? Because he was full of glitz and glitter? No, just the opposite. Kids can spot a phony or insincerity a mile away. There was no insincerity or phoniness in Jim Abdnor. It has been said that if Jim had an enemy it was because that person never knew Jim on a personal level.
Jim could be tough when he needed to be. Those young people who worked for him knew they were in for a lecture when he started a sentence with: “let me tell you something friend”. I also know of a young man, who got in trouble in college and got kicked out. Jim went to bat for him, talked the college into giving the young man a second chance. Then Jim had what could be called a heart to heart conversation with the young man. That young man is now a successful businessman and a family man. He would be the first to tell you he owes what and where he is today to Jim Abdnor.
In the last year Jim’s disease took its toll. But it didn’t diminish his competitive spirit. One day he relapsed into his political days. He told my son Torrey that he needed to get the boys together as he had to decide what to run for. Then he proceeded to analyze possible races. Torrey said it was extremely interesting to listen to him strategize. Then he said “I’m not sure I can beat that woman”. We were never sure what woman he was talking about although we probably have it narrowed down to two. However we did know he wasn’t sure he could beat her. Then he asked Torrey who the current US Senator was. Torrey said John Thune. Jim said oh, yea. And its like he was snapped back into reality and the strategizing was over.
I really believe Jim Abdnor’s legacy is all of the young people he influenced and mentored and those many young people who worked for him and are now successful citizens. There are many examples but probably none better than our next Speaker, the current United State Senator for SD. But John is far from the only example. There are successful Abdnor people all over South Dakota & the United States.
One of the remarkable things I observed in the past couple weeks was the steady stream of former staffers and employees who came to tell Jim thank you and goodbye. And people like Troy, Vance, Sherri, Torrey, Carol, Wanda, Walt, and Dick and others who were at his side for hours and days on end. I submit one doesn’t do that for an ordinary boss and friend but Jim Abdnor was not just an ordinary boss and friend.
In a couple hours we will take Jim home, back to the Lyman County & Kennebec he loved and claimed as home. He always voted there. He refused to vote absentee but would have Torrey or someone drive him home to vote. He always had a 45 on his car license. He referred to his houses in Rapid City and Florida as “his place”. He referred to Kennebec as his home. He will be laid to rest less than a mile from the house in which he was born.
Jim your ride through life will be complete, and what a ride it has been. From plain old Jim to membership in the most exclusive club in America, the US Senate, and back. And through it all, he remained plain old wonderful Jim.
It has often been asked: did you leave the world better than what you found it? For Jim the answer to that question is unquestionably yes. As one long time friend told me: he was one of a kind. We will not see the likes of him ever again.
I was honored to be one of Jim’s attorneys and more importantly his friend and I am a better person for knowing him.
Goodbye my friend and thank you for being you, plain old Jim, plain old remarkable, wonderful and very special Jim Abdnor.